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1. Primary races draw battle lines between AIPAC and progressives
Last Tuesday brought about the culmination of some tough, tight and expensive primary races.
It was also the first real-life test for AIPAC’s new super PAC, which is called United Democracy Project (UDP). UDP poured roughly $7 million into three key Democratic primary races, trying to advance candidates who support its views on Israel and outspend their rivals who are critical of Israeli policies.
The pro-Israel lobby’s foray into political funding brought about mixed results. In North Carolina, Don Davis and Valerie Foushee, two candidates endorsed by UDP, won their primary races against progressive candidates in districts where current Democratic members of Congress are not seeking reelection. However, in Pennsylvania, despite the massive infusion of cash by UDP and by the like-minded Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), their candidate Steve Irwin lost to progressive Summer Lee in an extremely close race which was called days after the vote.
There are a couple of possible takeaways here:
One is that AIPAC, which took a ton of heat for its decision to launch a super PAC and for that super PAC’s decision to endorse pretty much everyone who is willing to support Israeli policies without question (including Republicans who refused to certify Biden’s 2020 victory), has endured. The super PAC was a super-effective tool for directing pro-Israel money at candidates, not only though helping two centrists win in their tough primary races, but also by elevating Pennsylvania’s Irwin to a competitive position, even though he ended up losing the race.
And there’s another point that will affect the entire community: Pro-Israel big money is now on the table. With AIPAC joining J Street, DMFI and other PACs—and overshadowing them with sizable political contributions—the game is clear: A candidate’s views on Israel have a direct impact on their campaign coffers. No more beating around the bush. Pro-Israel money, widely seen as “Jewish money,” is no longer deniable.
2. Bernie declares war
Bernie Sanders, unofficial leader of the progressive camp, has also been heavily invested in some of these races, especially Summer Lee’s race in Pennsylvania. While campaigning on the frontlines of these races, Sanders encountered the massive flow of super PAC funding, and he did not like it one bit.
In a letter to Democratic National Committee chair Jamie Harrison, Sanders called on the party to denounce super PAC money and disallow the use of it in its primary races. “A super PAC is a super PAC, whether it is funded by Republican billionaires or by Democratic billionaires,” he wrote.
Later, in a New York Times interview, he made clear who he was aiming at: AIPAC’s newly formed super PAC. “This is a war,” Sanders declared, “for the future of the Democratic Party.”
Sanders and fellow progressives are upset—and rightly so. It’s no fun watching your candidate get drowned out by a flow of cash from interest groups, regardless of the groups’ cause and intention.
His call for war should not be ignored. Sanders remains the driving force in the Democratic Party’s left wing, and his words carry weight. If Sanders calls on progressives to battle over the face of the Democratic Party, they will come. And if the face of the enemy turns out to be a pro-Israel lobbying group, well, that’s some troubling news for the pro-Israel community, and, for that matter, the entire Jewish community.
3. Should you worry about this?
Yes, you probably should.
Not because there’s anything new about progressives and centrists fighting over policy regarding Israel (fun fact: their differences on the issue aren’t even that big). These debates have been going on for years and reflect a healthy discussion among Democrats—and among Jewish Americans—on the best way for the U.S. to support Israel’s security and Middle East peace for decades to come.
It becomes a problem when this debate turns into the main issue progressives and centrists are fighting about.
The two sides disagree on many issues, from healthcare to taxes to student loan forgiveness and so much more. Israel is one of these issues, but not the most important one, nor the issue that defines either camp. So when Sanders makes AIPAC’s political donations the basis for his “war for the future of the Democratic Party,” and when pro-Israel super PACs turn the issue of Israel into a major fundraising topic in primary campaigns, that’s when the legitimate debate over Israel in the Democratic Party enters dangerous territory.
4. Dems take action on Palestinian journalist’s killing
The debate isn’t only about money and politics. At its core, there is a real divide between, on the one hand, Democrats who feel that Israeli governments have turned their back on a two-state solution for the Palestinian conflict and have supported measures that help Jewish settlers at the expense of Palestinians’ rights, and, on the other, those who may disagree with specific Israeli policies but believe that in the bigger picture, America should not try to force Israel’s hand.
Last week, this divide manifested itself in a letter from more than 50 Democratic members of Congress to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and FBI Director Christopher Wray. The letter called on the two agencies to launch an investigation into the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, an American citizen and Al Jazeera journalist killed while reporting in the West Bank city of Jenin.
This call contradicts the position of Israel which insists on conducting its own investigation, and drew an angry response from Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Mike Herzog, who tweeted: “I was disheartened to read the letter published today by members of Congress calling for an FBI and State Department investigation into the tragic death of Shireen Abu Akleh. This letter does not offer a fair representation of the case and reaches the wrong conclusion.”
There’s room to have this debate. Israel’s basic argument is that until a full investigation is held, including a forensic examination of the bullet that killed Abu Akleh, there’s no way of knowing if she died from shots fired by Israelis or by Palestinians. The congressional letter, on the other hand, highlights reports of eyewitnesses and media outlets which contradict the claim that the reporter was caught in an exchange of fire between both sides, and indicate that it was only the Israeli military that was shooting at the time.
But more important is the list of signatories, or rather their number. Fifty-seven members of Congress signed on to the letter, and it was co-sponsored by Democrats Ander Carson and Luis Correa. The list includes members of “the Squad,” as well as longtime critics of Israeli policies, such as Minnesota’s Betty McCollum. But it also includes many others, among them Democrats who lean liberal but are not staunch progressives (such as Carson himself) and some who maintain working ties with pro-Israel groups and are not known to be tough critics (Joaquin Castro, for example).
And here again, there’s a red flag for the centrist pro-Israel community, and for Israeli diplomats: The hard left is already lost and nothing you can do will win back “the Squad” or those who voted against providing extra funding for Iron Dome. But now a whole other group is slipping away, and incidents such as the killing of a Palestinian-American reporter, refusing an independent investigation and then beating up the pallbearers at her funeral are driving them further away.
5. Where is it heading?
Tensions run high during election seasons. After all, it all ends up with a binary choice between two candidates, and it is understandable that both sides resort to attacks, accusations and hyperbole.
What happens after primary season, and after the November midterms?
That’s up to all sides. Here’s what they can do to mend relations (assuming they are interested in doing so).
For progressives: AIPAC is a legitimate target, especially given the oversized role it is playing in funding candidates this election cycle. But when the dust settles, it would be wise to remind supporters what the policy differences are, and how AIPAC is only responsible for one super PAC out of many that are out there.
For AIPAC: Donors’ money is making a difference, but it is also undermining years of efforts by the lobby to reach out to progressive Democrats. This may be a good time to rethink some of the endorsements and calibrate the use of big money.
For Israel: While the current government is way less antagonistic toward Democrats in general and progressives specifically, it can do a lot more to reassure the American left. Part of it has to do with reaching out, which Ambassador Herzog and Foreign Ministry top officials are already doing. But it also means thinking about progressives as another American power group to reckon with. Cases like the killing of Abu Akleh provide a clear choice: Agreeing to an independent inquiry could go a long way in driving home the point that Israel is a democracy that believes in accountability and transparency.